Scientific Literacy, Religion and the Fate of the World

The election year of 2016 will present opportunities to bring scientific literacy into the debates around climate change and more. The future of our democracy may depend on raising the level of scientific literacy, not only among the population of voters, but among the candidates.
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Concept about the modern life
Concept about the modern life

The U.S. Presidential primary debates and the media have thus far given very little attention to climate change. Perhaps that is the for best, since, at least on the Republican side, more coverage in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses would only serve to provide a platform for misinformation from several of the candidates. In 2016 there are very few remaining holdouts regarding climate science, with the recent Paris climate agreement showing unprecedented international consensus, and Exxon admitting that they have in fact understood the science for several decades. The anti-climate constituency seems to have coalesced around paranoid Tea-party conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists in the Republican Party (and the candidates who want their vote). Among the outspoken climate denialists running for president are businessman Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and retired neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson.

Trump's anti-climate stance relates to his taste for paranoid conspiracy-theories, as with his support of the "birther" movement that claimed President Obama was a Muslim born in Africa (a claim that was completely false). Cruz's and Carson's worldview is based more on fundamentalist religious, anti-scientific ideas, which cannot accommodate evolution by natural selection or human-caused climate change. (Carson, in fact, may not even be able to grasp the concept of gravity.)

Such views are prevalent in America. Surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute indicate a major divide in thinking among Americans, based on scientific versus religious worldviews. As reported by CNN, although 6 in 10 Americans stated they believe extreme weather events are related to climate change, "More than a third of Americans see recent extreme weather as a sign that the world is in biblical "end times," and "Thirty-six percent of Americans say that the severity of recent natural disasters indicate that we are at the precipice of Jesus' second coming and the end of the world. The survey found that 15 percent of Americans believe the world will end, as predicated in the book of Revelation, in their lifetime."

This minority of Americans is preventing solutions to climate change from being implemented. Recalcitrance in the U.S. Congress had a real impact on how the Paris Climate Agreement, instead of being a binding, legally enforceable treaty, ended up as an aspirational document that will mostly be implemented by subnational and private sector actors. Until the grip of climate denialism loosens in the House and Senate, the best solution to climate change, a carbon price, is not going anywhere nationally. For these reasons, it is not hyperbole to say that the fate of the world depends on scientific literacy, and reducing the reliance on Biblical scripture in environmental and climate policy decisions.

Progressive elements in the faith community can play a vital role in diminishing the influence of the climate deniers by educating the American public on the difference between scientific and religious understanding of the world, how to tell the difference between facts based on evidence and opinion, and to generate a sense of moral outrage at climate denial.

Religion's call to moral action, which has been elevated by Pope Francis, can help encourage people to take on personal change and improvement. Religious communities will be an important source of support as extreme weather events increase, and cities face rebuilding after the hurricanes. Groups like Interfaith Power and Light have the unique ability to work within the faith community around climate action, and bridge the gap between science and religion. Religious denominations that accept scientific thinking such as the Jesuits and others can continue to be outspoken about environmental sustainability.

The media will also need to take a stand against climate deniers. Reddit's Science forum has set the benchmark for this and perhaps Huffington Post can do the same. Science communicators who have stepped into the breach include Bill Nye the Science Guy's media work such as his debate with creationists, and Neil deGrasse Tyson's educational efforts such as his Star Talk radio show and Cosmos program that revives the 1980's show hosted by Carl Sagan. Tyson's media appearances and blogs are sometimes provocative, but challenge readers to question their worldviews.

Satire and humor is another weapon to awaken some people who were raised to be anti-science. An excellent example is The Last Testament: A memoir by God by David Javerbaum, a devastating parody of the Bible with the potential to demolish the stereotypical depiction of the "Old Man With A Long White Beard" shooting lightning bolts out of his fingers. The book is gutsy in an age of religious political correctness and/or fear of religious-fundamentalist violence, and the Twitter feed provides the same bite with levity.

The election year of 2016 will present opportunities to bring scientific literacy into the debates around climate change and more. The future of our democracy may depend on raising the level of scientific literacy, not only among the population of voters, but among the candidates.

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